Atari Arcade: Hands on With Retro Classics

When Atari's Greatest Hits made its way into the App Store this past April, retro-oriented gaming geeks worldwide - especially those who'd never been quite geeky enough to seek out ROMs to run on the open-source MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) - rejoiced. Offering 99 classic arcade and Atari 2600 titles for $14.99 (since reduced to $9.99; you can also buy individual packs of four titles for $.99 each), the package was an unbeatable bargain for those seeking to relive the idyllic, quarter-hungry days of their youths.

Looking for vectorscope faves like Tempest and Major Havoc? They're here. Blocky Atari 2600 classics like Adventure and Yar's Revenge? Check. Centipede? Of course. Basic Math? Indeed.

Gameplay is as you remember, and you'll find a plethora of control options on tap - onscreen arcade-style buttons, virtual trackballs and rollers, joysticks, with variants for landscape and portrait modes. Even the old Atari 2600 console control panel is replicated in all its quaint glory. If you're a bit more modern, you can dispense with the virtual controllers (some of them are a bit more nostalgic than actually useful in the touchscreen context) and just swipe across the playing field in the modern fashion.

But if you'd rather relive things a bit more viscerally, the Atari Arcade, a new "appcessory" from Discovery Bay Games' Duo division (the folks behind the nifty little Sphero remote-controlled orb), hit Apple retail stores yesterday, and it brings a little of the old magic back to the physical arena.

Of course, not all of the included games made use of a joystick in the first place, and employing one in the case of, say, Centipede, takes a little getting used to. For a game like the Atari 2600 oldie-but-goodie Combat, a physical joystick beats any of the virtual options hands down for tank control - basically, if you're planning on spending serious time with these titles (and you know who you are) you'll benefit by getting some sort of controller in the mix. It's tons of fun.

There are alternatives, of course, the main one being the slightly pricier ($99.99) and somewhat bulkier Ion iCade - but the Atari unit's a compelling competitor, especially for those who don't want to devote the desktop real estate to the Ion unit. A direct docking connector (a wireless Bluetooth connection is used by the iCade), means the Atari doesn't need its own power supply (thus you can reduce your investment by two AA batteries, required by the iCade). On the other hand, the Ion gives you a bigger complement of buttons, and a more solid, tilt-friendly cabinet (handy if your style involves some body English). Both devices limit you to portrait mode, which doesn't necessarily maximize the advantage of the iPad's screen real estate, but it is more historically accurate.

Either way, of course, you can always play without the controller if you feel the need. Or you could investigate an option with less retro cred like the stick-on joysticks from FlingLogitech, or ThinkGeek. It's really a matter of taste.

Back to Gravitar for me, folks.

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